Entertainment to Support Mental Wellbeing
April is Stress Awareness month and May is Mental Health Awareness month, so it feels like the right time to talk about the beliefs that have led me to found a new type of entertainment company, focused on feel-good and happy stories.
Simply put, most of us are looking to be surprised and delighted when we put on a TV show, or swipe through our #ForYou pages. But, more specifically, we’re seeking an emotion, a hormone rush, a deep-rooted sense of relaxation that pulls us out of the hubbub of our lives–whether it’s work, school, leading, following, or actively participating in the world around us.
At a concert last week, it struck me that the most basic unit of “joy” comes down to hormone pathways that light up in specific ways in response to a stimulus. That the way that your favorite song makes you want to keep listening on repeat over and over, where you know how the beat drop, or chorus, will make you feel, is the way that Dopamine being released in your brain feels. It’s a universal feeling that we all have all experienced, in millions of little ways that are unique to each of us. Part of what I love about a good story– especially feel-good stories like rom-coms, romance, and comedy– is that moment in the story where tension is building, full of dramatic expectation, yet you know there will be a feel-good moment at the end. That audience experience is both surprising yet inevitable, all at the same time.
In an exclusive interview, actress Julie Bowen describes this feeling perfectly:
It’s the dopamine that hits you when you’re “falling in love,” or what should be called “falling in dopamine™.” That is the addictive part that they talk about being dangerous when it comes to heroin, opioids, social media, and others. But it’s actually naturally available to us when we make ourselves vulnerable and loving to another person. I never got addicted to opioids or heroin, but there’s no doubt that I can watch those scenes and feel that, like when Matthew MacFadyen finally says, “I lo… lov… love you.” I can watch it every time and still go, “I know what’s happening in my brain. I know it’s all drugs and tricks, but I don’t care. I love it.”
As Bowen put it so eloquently in describing a favorite moment from PRIDE & PREJUDICE, when you consume emotionally-satisfying content, your hormones respond, not just your mind. Increased levels of oxytocin and dopamine have been detected in rom-com watchers, which explains why it’s so easy to binge when you see a new one come out. Oxytocin, colloquially referred to as “the love hormone,” promotes empathy, thus correlating it to success in relationship to self, friendships and romantic relationships. When we listen to or watch fictional stories, we trigger the same pathways when feeling sympathy for the characters as we root for them, invest in them emotionally, and perhaps see parts of ourselves reflected in them. And then there is the tendency to apply emotional responses taken from media to other aspects of everyday life, linking the consumption of entertainment with increased empathy in the real world. Almost like a meditation or a workout, but more fun. As icon Elle Woods put it in LEGALLY BLONDE, “[Rom-Coms give] you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” The barrier to entry is low, and the emotional satisfaction is high.
After about 15 years of being a die-hard rom com fan and over two years and 400+ original rom-coms under my belt as a founder, I would even go as far as to say that scheduling time in your day to consume your favorite entertainment is an act of mental health, akin to exercise, meditation, and journaling. It’s a signal to your body and your brain that you need time for the things that make you happy, not because you have to but because you want to. Streaming platforms have made bingeable entertainment easier for us, podcasts even more so because we can enjoy entertainment on-the-go, and in an intimately personal way.
But besides hormones alone, entertainment — especially scripted, fictional entertainment — has the ability to change people’s behaviors and societal perceptions in ways that perhaps news or nonfiction cannot. Because fiction stories pull us away from reality, these stories can transcend people’s preconceived notions in the real world to explore complex social issues and interpersonal human behaviors through fictional characters and settings. A diversity of voices in storytelling gives us many lenses to learn about important topics and themes that are unique to communities that we might not be a part of, but that are made relatable through character journeys and progressions that broader audiences can identify with. Fictional storytelling can lead to more inclusivity and main character energy for marginalized groups and communities, and today, more than ever, audiences want to see bold takes on tried and true tropes, especially in the genre of romantic comedies and love. One way to explore a multiplicity of viewpoints through fictional storytelling is through an incubator model, in which we can engage with hundreds if not thousands of creators to infuse their perspectives and experiences into romantic comedies for wider audiences to enjoy.
When audiences see themselves reflected in characters, there is a natural feeling of acceptance and relatability that is certainly healthy for individuals, and even healthy for society because it teaches a multiplicity of viewpoints to all ages, as early as toddlers. We learn to see issues and topics from multiple perspectives, without ever leaving a fictional universe. An example of a seemingly niche yet relatable character is Devi in Mindy Kaling’s NEVER HAVE I EVER, who is one of the few young, female South Asian characters shown as being outspoken, funny, and coping with deep-rooted identity and familial issues on screen. Devi’s race does not make her less relatable for non-Indian audiences; instead, the relatability transcends race altogether, and the audience finds some part of Devi that they can relate to — whether it’s her hot-mess personality, her strained relationship with her mother, or her never-ending attempts to impress the other kids at school.
Marc Klein, who wrote the rom-com classic SERENDIPITY, sums this up well:
When I look at a romantic comedy, I don’t care how the lead female identifies, to me she’s representing a person who is desiring and everything else is less interesting. It’s not about the externals, it’s about the internals. Crazy Rich Asians is a good example: I loved it, from the gender or race perspective, I couldn’t be further away — I’m a white Jewish guy, not Taiwanese. But I could still watch it and say, ‘That’s my brother. That’s my sister-in-law.’
Watching other people falling in love, no matter their background, sexuality, or “archetype,” makes us feel good and is good for us. That’s why I think about Meet Cute not as a traditional entertainment company, but rather as a storytelling incubator pushing the boundaries on what a wellbeing company looks like. We care about making our audiences feel delighted every day, and that’s why we are constantly working with creators from diverse backgrounds with unique lenses to deliver on that promise to our audience. Like meditation, or a session with a therapist, there is unique value to people in consuming entertainment that pulls us out of your current headspace and reality; I like to call that feel-good escapism.
To build a media company in 2022 is….to build a wellness company, taking the shape of stories.